Tropicals add a look of lushness


This summer, many gardeners have begun looking for plants that will give them a tropical feeling when they go outside to work or play. Something with a little pizazz, to go along with that equatorial heat wave.

Palms, taros and even small banana trees are starting to pop up around Baltimore landscapes. Many traditional garden plants have been recruited to play new roles.

"Younger homeowners, in particular, are just getting tired of conservative gardens all the time. They drive down the block, and theirs looks the same as everyone else's," says landscape designer Judy Blaisdell at Garland's Gardens in Catonsville.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of interest in [tropicals] this year," says Robert "Scotty" Scott, of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville. "It's really been growing the last couple years."

Palms, small banana trees and tender hibiscus are top sellers, although Scott cautions his customers that Baltimore is still in Zone 7 as far as winters go. Scott advises that these plants can best be enjoyed in containers. Then they can be cut back and taken into the house in the winter, and be safely kept in semi-dormancy in a sunny room until spring.

Scott says there are also "things that can be used to brighten up the shade, look totally exotic and catch your eye: the really big-leafed hostas, like 'Sum and Substance,' Ligularia, ostrich ferns [Matteuccia struthiopteris], things like that."

He also recommends fillers like Carex 'Bowles Golden' to "soften things up" and Japanese painted fern.

For sunny exposures, the ornamental grasses are still everyone's favorites, notably Miscanthus varieties such as 'Morning Light' and 'Sarabande,' whose graceful foliage adds movement to the garden with even the smallest breeze, and fills in awkward corners quickly.

Striped cannas, often called tiger cannas, are also popular choices. 'Bengal Tiger,' for example, with flower stalks over 6 feet tall, has impressively striped yellow and green leaves. 'Tropicana's' leaves emerge bright purple in spring and end up striped with green, yellow and red.

Another exotic plant to fit the bill for heavy, wet ground or bog gardens is Petasites japonicus var. giganteus. One name is 'Dinosaur Food' and with umbrella-shaped leaves up to 4 feet across, one imagines it would certainly make a fine meal for one.

Don't forget some of the old standbys either. Nancy Pena, horticulturist at Gardens of La Paz landscape company, likes to use mimosa trees, which look like something straight from Kenya or Jamaica. They are hardy here, with wonderfully lacy foliage and bursts of delicate pink and white flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Pena also recommends Nandina domestica, or Heavenly Bamboo which is actually no relation to bamboo at all, but a pretty, noninvasive, evergreen shrub, whose foliage somewhat resembles its namesake.

Blaisdell noted that when people come into Garland's asking for "something unusual" or "exotic looking," the plant that goes home with them most often is Cotinus coggygria, more often known as smoke bush.

"This is a large shrub or small tree which can be pruned up to reveal the lower branches," says Blaisdell, "and has wonderful, purplish foliage and clouds of purple or pink flowers in the spring, depending on the variety you get."

The larger-leaved bamboos -- Arundinaria and Sasa -- are often included in subtropical landscapes too. Blaisdell's trick when using these potentially invasive beauties is to plant them in pots to confine their root systems and use them as accents. These are attractive also used on decks and are hardy in our area as well.

And, of course, there is always our lovely but neglected native Staghorn sumac. The foliage is lush and tropical looking, with graceful fronds of medium green, compound leaves, which turn a spectacular scarlet in the fall. It makes an excellent small tree, and forms graceful colonies. Its branching patterns are artistic even in winter.

Tropical Plant Highlights

BANANAS are not really trees, but herbaceous perennials. There are many kinds to choose from, from ornamental dwarfs to varieties up to 30 feet tall. Pick a protected location so that wind and storms do not shred your banana leaves. Work in as much organic matter as you can to the soil. You cannot overfertilize (organically) or overwater bananas. Choose a fertilizer high in potassium and low in nitrogen for best results. Do not let your banana stand in a pool of water. Full sun is important.

CANNAS are bold, exciting plants that multiply quickly in the garden. They are considered drought tolerant, but respond best to regular watering, and prefer full sun for best flowering. Average to rich soil. The rhizomes may be overwintered in the ground with protection in this area, or be taken up and stored in a cool, frost-free place over the winter.

MIMOSA (Albizia). These graceful, spreading small trees with feathery, rosy-pink flowers and delicate compound leaves withstand drought, high pH, poor soil and windy sites. They grow 20 to 30 feet tall and wide, like full sun and average soil.

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES are available in hundreds of varieties and can be the low-maintenance, low-cost backbone of a tropical garden. They grow quickly and have few, if any, pests. The keys to remember are: full or mostly full sun for most varieties, good (not too rich or poor) garden soil, and not too much fertilizer. Most tolerate drought once established. Cut back once a year in the spring.

OSTRICH FERN, a North American native with a rain-forest look, matures at 5 feet tall, forms large colonies and is maintenance-free except to cut back the dead fronds in the spring. These ferns need soil rich in organic matter and do best in shade or half shade.

SMOKE BUSH is notable in the garden mainly for its exotic leaf color -- purple -- and delicate clouds of pink or purple flowers, which appear in late spring or midsummer. Smoke bush does well in average garden soil, in full sun and with regular watering and fertilizing. It can be grown as a large shrub (to 15 feet) or trimmed to make a small, multi-trunked tree with attractive, corky bark.

Aaron's Nursery

P.O. Box 800

Sumner, GA 31789


The Banana Tree

715 North Hampton St.

Easton, PA 18042


Carroll Gardens Inc.

444 East Main Street

Westminister, MD 21157


Garland's Garden Center and Florist

1109 Ingleside Ave.

Catonsville, MD 21207


Valley View Farms

11035 York Road

Cockeysville, MD 21030


Sources for plants that lend a tropical look to the landscape

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